How does any of this relate to Age of Conan or The Anvil of Crom? Well, the book is basically the businessman's customer relations Bible, and I was reminded of it earlier in the week when Funcom's Craig "Silirrion" Morrison commented on a Daily Grind that I wrote about game developers and the large gap that often exists between their products and their customers' desires.
Actually, I already need to back up and correct myself, as MMORPGs are services first and products second, and as such are subject to ever-changing customer service demands and challenges. Along the same lines, though, they offer a much wider opportunity to create raving fans due to the pervasiveness and virility of internet message boards, Twitter, and the connected (and somewhat narcissistic) mentality of the gaming community in general.
So what is a raving fan, then, and why does Age of Conan lack them?
Raving Fans, authored by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles, posits that successful businesses don't settle for "satisfied customers" and instead actively try to turn their clients into raving fans (meaning people who use/like/recommend the product to the extent that it ceases to be simply a product and takes on some sort of significance in their lives, as does their relationship with the company providing it). Raving fans are in turn an extension of the sales force, as word of mouth results in a tidal wave of goodwill, new business, and ultimately, profit.
It sounds pretty simple on paper, but relatively few companies do it, and only a handful do it really well. The best example is Apple, as anyone who has ever talked with Mac fanatics can attest to the fact that they're fairly obsessive (some would say cultish) over a line of products that are really no different than your average bargain-basement Dell in terms of components, construction, and functionality.
Due to masterful marketing and customer relations, though, Apple has created an aura of cool around its product line that compels people to not only purchase at inflated prices but talk about said purchases to anyone who will listen. There is no real Apple analog in the gaming world, though a case could be made that Blizzard comes close by virtue of its Diablo and StarCraft titles (the mere mention of the former sends many hardcore gamers into an omg-my-life-is-going-to-come-to-a-screeching-halt-when-Diablo-III-arrives orgasm).
This is where Funcom (and to be fair, every other game company not named Blizzard) falls down. Communicating and connecting with its hardcore base (the members of which have the potential to be raving fans and consequently infect more of the general/casual MMORPG population) is simply not something that Funcom does well, or by all appearances, spends any money on. Sure, Craig Morrison is one of the more visible and accessible MMO developers out there. He's always posting on the AoC boards and also appears in the Massively comments section semi-regularly. It's not so much the fact that he doesn't talk, though, as it is that he doesn't say much when it comes to details.
Take the response to the aforementioned Daily Grind. Morrison's overall point is a good one: You can't please all of the people all of the time. His secondary point -- that nearly all of AoC's post-release changes, tweaks, and updates have been the result of player feedback -- is a little harder to digest. Essentially he's asking us to take this on faith, as Funcom doesn't publish feedback results (aside from the very general surveys from summer 2010). Going a step further, we don't even know how (or whether) player feedback is collected and analyzed. Is it solely from these infrequent surveys? Does it come from the forums? Is it from the users on the test server? Are people submitting reams of private feedback via the help systems or website?
If Funcom really is making AoC for its players, the question then becomes: Who are these players, and who is giving the feedback that is acted upon? As an example, if you scour the official boards, you'll find few, if any, requests for horse racing, freeze tag, and insult contests (all of which Funcom implemented in a recent patch). You will find a plethora of posts asking for other social gameplay options, though (specifically, appearance slots). Why was one prioritized over the other? Was this truly because more people asked for it? This seeming discrepancy is exactly the sort of thing that causes players to doubt developers who say they listen to feedback, and it could be probably be avoided with a little more developmental transparency.
Maybe a lot of people really did want horse racing, so why not publish the data that show it? At the very least, Funcom could point to hard statistics any time the PvP crowd screams about Bori or the roleplayers ask for appearance slots or the casual PVEers ask about account-wide tokens and reducing the Khitai grind.
The perception problem
To the hardcore (i.e., potential raving) fan, MMO developers sometimes seem to have an attitude that approximates "to heck with the players; I'm going to make the game I want to make, and if people don't like it, they can play something else." I say "seem" here because obviously no dev in his right mind would ever admit to such a thing. Even the Mark Jacobses and Derek Smarts of the world know better than to drop that kind of incendiary soundbyte. It's more what's not said, though, and what kinds of updates are continually talked about at the expense of others that have been asked for time and again. In my opinion, the only way to truly combat this negative perception is with hard data.
For the most part, MMOs are one of the very few service industries in which the service providers can get away with effectively saying "take it or leave it." This is mostly because gaming is a completely optional and frivolous leisure activity, and the well-adjusted people don't go away mad. They just go away (and are theoretically replaced by the never-ending churn of tire-kickers and returnees). This is also touched on in the Raving Fans book and cited as a major concern for businesses everywhere. It strikes me as even more pressing for businesses focused on luxury products and services (i.e., games that we really don't need).
In summary, while I've never worked in the games industry, I imagine it's not that different from any other specialized business. The numbers may be larger than your average small business (and the client base certainly is), but at the end of the day, everything boils down to making people feel good about your product. As a fan (but not a raving fan) of AoC, I'd like to see Funcom take a serious stab at improving this aspect of its operation going forward. One way to start is by making clear the most effective avenues for players to get their feedback heard (and acted upon) and by offering a bit more insight into the development process. In the meantime, I'm sure it comes as no surprise that I am a raving fan of this concept art.
Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via firstname.lastname@example.org.